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'Cities in Schools' Acts to Cut Dropouts : Group Is Trying to Give Hope to Teen-Agers

January 03, 1988|TAMARA HENRY | United Press International

WASHINGTON — The New Year is traditionally a time of hope, a time to look forward to a better life. But for a million teen-age school dropouts, 1988 won't offer much hope, only a dim and uncertain future.

Bill Milliken, president of the nation's largest dropout prevention program, named Cities in Schools, would like to change that.

Milliken, who visits schools around the country to encourage superintendents to implement his program, told of how one young person blurted out during a lunch conversation, "I don't know what I am going to do if there is a future."

Pointing to the youth's use of the word "if," Milliken reflected, "It is a sad reality that, for a great many young people, the question has become 'if' instead of 'what.' For far too many young people who have dropped out or are contemplating dropping out, there is a deep-seated fear and frozenness about their futures. They seem to have so little hope."

Team of Specialists

Cities in Schools is one answer, Milliken is convinced, because it brings within school buildings a "multidisciplined team of teachers, social workers, health workers, recreation people and volunteers" to work with students most likely to drop out of school.

"They care if you come (to class) or not," said one young girl involved in the program in New York City.

A District of Columbia student said, "Nobody will put you down or tell you that you are too low to get back up and try again."

The National Education Assn. predicts 1 million teen-agers will drop out of school or will be chronically absent this year.

The Census Bureau reported the high school dropout rate fell by 16% between 1973 and 1983, but nearly one-sixth of all 10th graders still fail to graduate with their class.

School Is Cheaper

Milliken said it is cheaper to keep children in schools than in other institutions. The court system or prisons cost between $15,000 to $30,000 a year per individual, while schools cost about $3,000 to $5,000, he said.

"We have this debate between conservatives and liberals about whether we need more resources or less resources because we don't know how to deliver the resources we do have," said Milliken. "We need to get it to the people in a very personal way and a very accountable way. Right now it's a system problem, not a political problem."

The nonprofit program is fiscally responsible, he stressed, because it connects private business and already established social services from local departments of education, Health and Human Services, Parks and Recreation, and others.

System Inefficient

"We couldn't have designed a worse way to deliver our resources," Milliken said, noting most juvenile programs are divided into categories, such as drug and alcohol, literacy and pregnancy.

"But how do you break down a community to fit these categories and then fund these fragmented pieces," he asked, rhetorically. "We shouldn't see kids as categories or fragments but as whole persons who need services in a coordinated way."

The team approach enables young people who need social services to be served in small, manageable groups so they can avoid becoming frustrated and isolated in a maze of red tape.

Schools Best Method

Milliken, who founded CIS in 1976, said common-sense told him that "schools are the best place to reach kids and to find them to get them the resources they need." But he also learned in the years to keep the program alive that learning does not have to occur in a school building.

Cities in Schools operates at about 88 sites in 23 cities. In Atlanta, Rich's Department Store --a centennial institution and one of the city's largest employers--has converted the top floor of its downtown flagship store into a learning academy that serves 100 CIS students age 12 and older. More than 400 students have graduated from the program.

A church also hosts a CIS program in Atlanta.

Partnerships Formed

CIS forms a variety of partnerships. It has teamed up with the Private Industry Council in Miami and West Palm Beach, Fla., and Philadelphia. The Boys Clubs of America also has entered into a partnership with the program.

In Texas, the South Central Region operates under a state plan called Communities in Schools, handled by the Texas Employment Commission. Even Burger King fast-food chain initiated a partnership with a $100,000 contribution.

In the District of Columbia, Vice President George Bush's wife, Barbara, has been an active supporter of Cities in Schools because of her literacy efforts.

Usually the way the program works is that the CIS headquarters, using grant money from a variety of sources, assists local schools in implementing the concepts of the program. Once the basic principles are taught, the school takes total ownership.

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